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Lowell Eyes New Internet Option to Give Comcast Competition

March 27, 2019

LOWELL -- When it comes to internet providers, XFINITY by Comcast is the only game in town.

That dominance may come to an end if the City Council decides to authorize city administrators to enter into an agreement with SiFi Networks America.

The company has submitted a formal proposal to privately fund, design, build, operate and maintain a new fiber optic network in the city, Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin told the City Council Tuesday night.

In short, this could add a new internet service option for customers seeking an alternative to Comcast.

“This presents a very exciting opportunity for the city to provide, not necessarily a municipally owned broadband network, but a network funded through private investment that would come at no cost to taxpayers,” Baldwin said.

City officials believe competition from new internet providers, which could access the city through this network, could drive down rates for residents.

“It’s been shown that in communities where Comcast is or say Verizon is or there’s just a single provider, as other providers come in, the initial provider -- say Comcast for example -- has marketed aggressively to lower their rates,” said Miran Fernandez, the city’s Chief Information Officer.

SiFi is not an internet provider, but would allow other companies to access its network to offer service to customers, Fernandez said. Also, the proposed broadband network is limited to internet services, meaning it won’t offer an alternative to those seeking other options for cable television.

According to Fernandez, the company has made a similar offer to Salem, Massachusetts, which approved the proposal last year. He said city officials he spoke to from Salem were positive about working with SiFi, however the network is not yet in service there.

He said installing this cable is a major project, which cannot happen in just a few months. The company proposed a process called “micro-trenching” to install the cable. In the memo submitted to the City Council, Baldwin describes this as the “least invasive construction technique currently available.”

“By passing every premise and street fixture, SiFi’s proposed fiber network creates a ubiquitous footprint which easily rivals that of Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS communities,” he wrote.

City Manager Eileen Donoghue said having this fiber optic network could be a boon for economic development within the city. This project, she said, isn’t something the city could undertake on its own.

“If the city were to try to attempt this on its own with a municipal network it would be cost prohibitive on many levels,” she said. “Not just the installation, but the maintenance and the service of such a service. We just don’t have the capability to do that.”

The city issued a request for proposals from companies for this type of project following a motion Councilor Karen Cirillo made Jan. 29 to explore building a municipal broadband network. Though several companies expressed interest, only SiFi actually submitted a proposal, according to a memo presented to the City Council.

While wireless networks, like 5G, may be coming in the near future, Fernandez said this does not decrease the significance of the opportunity.

First, due to the number of brick structures in Lowell, 5G may not work well in the city, he said. Second, the proposal by SiFi would position the city to take advantage of this technological development.

“If Verizon or Sprint wanted to expand to deliver 5G services here in the city, then they could reach out to SiFi to use the fiber they already laid out, which makes it quicker and easier for them to employ and then they could turn around and negotiate with the city for right-of-way for that (equipment) to be placed on poles or elsewhere,” he said.

“It positions the city into a better place to allow for 5G expansion as well as any other future services that may be available,” he said.

Comcast started operating in the city in 2002, after it acquired AT&T Broadband. In this time it has expanded coverage to the entire city and invested millions in maintenance and upgrades annually, according to city officials.

In an agreement with the city, Comcast also provides funding for public access television, which tapes public meetings and produces other local content. Donoghue said this funding has dwindled as more people have stopped paying for cable.

The SiFi proposal was forwarded to the City Council Technologies and Utilities Subcommittee for discussion. City Council is also expected to hear a presentation from the company before making a decision.

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